National Parks An Escape -- For Drug Smugglers 

National Parks An Escape -- For Drug Smugglers 
Posted by FoM on December 10, 1999 at 15:16:59 PT
By Traci Watson, USA TODAY
Source: USA Today
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ariz. -- Rust-red mountains and green saguaro cactuses highlight a gorgeous panorama at this remote national park, a pristine enclave of 330,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert. Quail rustle in the brush, and piglike javelinas munch on roots and leaves.
But park ranger Karl Pearson ignores the scenery, peering instead at the dirt and pebbles on the dry ground. Reading clues invisible to an untrained eye, he sees trouble.''This is what I was afraid of,'' he says, pointing to some faint, dun-colored circles in the soil: horses' hoofprints. ''You can see tracks right here in the road, real fresh. I'll bet they came back this morning.''The riders, Pearson believes, were not on an innocent jaunt. More likely, he says, they were drug traffickers returning to Mexico after smuggling hundreds of pounds of marijuana north through the park into the USA.As federal authorities tighten security at some sectors of the border, drug smugglers are switching to wilder, less-guarded sections -- and that often means national parks. Many park officials say the crackdowns at the border sectors near El Paso and McAllen, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and San Diego have contributed to a recent rise in the flow of drugs through the parks, though they decline to release statistics. ''We shift our efforts, they shift theirs, to the path of least resistance,'' says Joel Wright, an El Paso-based special agent for the National Park Service.As a result, authorities in the border parks are seizing thousands of pounds of drugs a year and arresting dozens of people. Drug smugglers have threatened rangers, trampled delicate plants and burned historic structures.Smugglers try to sneak through a half-dozen national parks, including:* Biscayne National Park, near Homestead, Fla. Consisting of about 300 square miles of ocean sprinkled with a handful of islands, this park makes a spacious entryway for smugglers bringing drugs by boat from Mexico or the Caribbean.In their hurry to get to shore undetected, smugglers run their boats aground in shallow waters, killing fragile sea grass. In August, suspected drug traffickers being pursued by U.S. agents jumped overboard, leaving their vessel making tight circles at 30 mph in a section of the park covered with shallow reefs. Agents left the boat alone until engine failure slowed it. Four men were arrested.Smugglers usually try to slip through the park's waters at night, without lights, at the same time that commercial and recreational fishermen are chasing stone crabs and lobsters. ''It's certainly exciting if a 30-foot go-fast (boat) zings by you at 30 mph,'' says law-enforcement specialist Kim Korthuis, who says he's had that experience many times. He worries that it could be much worse than exciting someday for a luckless boater.* Padre Island National Seashore, near Corpus Christi, Texas. This park stretches along the Gulf Coast for 75 miles, making an inviting landing place for loads of drugs from northeastern Mexico. Smugglers ferry drugs in small, speedy ''sharkboats'' or by land from Mexico to the park's beaches, where trucks pick up the shipments.Sometimes a bale of drugs falls off a boat, or traffickers abandon their load when the authorities close in. Cocaine often washes up onshore, as do marijuana bundles, chief ranger Gus Martinez says.On an afternoon in October, alerted that traffickers might be in the area, Martinez began monitoring the main park road. The smugglers didn't notice the patrol car by the side of the highway. ''They were in a hurry, they broke a couple of (traffic) laws, and I pulled them over,'' Martinez says.Sitting in the bed of the smugglers' pickup were several duffel bags, which proved to be loaded with drugs. ''It was right there,'' Martinez says with amusement. The five men were arrested.Martinez thinks the park's drug traffic poses little risk to law-abiding beachgoers. But he resents the time and money spent in chasing down traffickers. Those resources could be better spent on filling gaps in the park's knowledge of its plants and animals, he says. ''We don't know what we've got because we're busy chasing drug dealers,'' Martinez complains.* North Cascades National Park, near Sedro-Woolley, Wash. In southern British Columbia, physically fit smugglers load canoes or kayaks full of potent Canadian marijuana. Then they paddle down the park's Ross Lake, which stretches from the U.S.-Canadian border to Washington's Highway 20.The only arrest so far came a few years ago after a smuggler failed to meet his contact on Highway 20, chief ranger Pete Cowan says. The smuggler decided to hitchhike -- and accepted a ride from a park employee, who wondered why anyone would be kayaking in November.The employee alerted park security. The kayaker, who was carrying a load of marijuana, was arrested and spent several months in jail.Cowan warns that there's still a potential for danger, no matter how hapless some smugglers are. ''There's big money involved here. There are big (jail) sentences involved,'' he says. ''When backed into a corner, those criminals could be a potential threat to unsuspecting tourists.''In fact, rangers say what worries them most is the safety of the park's legitimate visitors. Officials emphasize that their parks are extremely safe. But one park visitor was assaulted recently near the Mexican border, and rangers fear that there may be more such incidents as cross-border drug traffic rises.''The potential's there for anything to happen at any time,'' says Joel Wright, the park service agent in El Paso. ''The potential for violence is there daily.''Rangers are doing what they can. But the anti-drug work done by park rangers is only one small skirmish in a much larger war, and many park officials say there is never enough money and not enough staff to stanch the flow of drugs.''I don't want to be pessimistic,'' says Dan Wirth, a Tucson-based special agent for the park service. ''But with the current staffing and funding we have, we're never going to adequately stem the tide of drug trafficking through public lands. We're just too overwhelmed.''Rangers have always dealt with a darker side of park use. Criminals have prowled the national parks since before they were national parks. The tequila-like liquor mescal, for example, has been smuggled from Mexico through land that's now U.S. parks for decades.These days some smugglers are better organized, have much more money and can afford better technology than they could in the past, officials say. Traffickers use encrypted communications and conduct their own surveillance of law enforcement agencies and park rangers. They might carry cell phones, night-vision goggles and automatic weapons.Smugglers also rely on a combination of camouflage and chutzpah. At seaside parks, they've been found carrying fishing poles and camping gear while waiting on the beach for a shipment. In Big Bend National Park in southern Texas, rangers once trailed a suspicious motor home, chief ranger Bill Wright says. The occupants coolly stayed in character. ''They jumped out of the truck and started taking pictures of the country,'' Wright recalls. ''They had a camera and a cooler'' -- and 70 pounds of marijuana hidden in a tire.At some parks, smuggling is so prevalent that unsuspecting visitors have seen traffickers at work. Rangers would rather keep them unaware. ''We don't tell them, 'Oh, you probably saw a load being delivered,' '' Bill Wright says dryly. ''It doesn't add to the visitor experience.''Sometimes the contact is more direct. In July, a visitor strolling the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore -- a collection of islands and mainland parcels in Mississippi and Florida -- found a bundle marked with gold seals bearing the words ''Republic of Colombia.'' The man reported his find to a ranger: two bricks of cocaine with a combined street value of $50,000.In 1997 at the Coronado National Memorial on the Mexican border near Hereford, Ariz., suspected drug smugglers pushed a female visitor down a hill, then stole her sport-utility vehicle. They drove the vehicle to Mexico. The woman was not seriously hurt and her vehicle was recovered, but no one was caught.At Organ Pipe, near the town of Why, Ariz., visitors occasionally stumble across drug caches. Several years ago, an off-trail hiker found a duffel bag in the desert holding 11 pounds of marijuana.While such incidents are rare, the evidence of drug trafficking is plentiful at the park. Steering a patrol truck, ranger Pearson drives north along State Highway 85, which runs from the Mexican border almost to Phoenix. He stops at what looks like any other wide spot in the road and walks a few hundred feet off the blacktop, which is already sizzling in the heat of a desert morning.At the base of some dark volcanic rocks overlooking the road, Pearson finds a heap of old gunny sacks and ropes. They're the remains of homemade backpacks for smuggling drugs.''This was probably a load of 300 to 400 pounds,'' he says, examining the trash. ''It looks like they delivered the load right here.''A shipment of that size has a street value of roughly $300,000, he says. It probably was carried 8 to 10 miles across the desert by young Mexican men known as ''mules.''''The mules are just kids, tough kids, and they pack it across on their backs,'' Pearson says. ''You've seen sugar bags of nylon mesh. They'll pack it in that, 50 pounds (apiece). These guys are tough, they're strong.'' Many are in their teens and 20s, Pearson says, and ''are not getting paid much to do this. From what I hear, they're getting $200, $300.'' Some of the mules die in the attempt; others end up in American prisons.Twenty feet from the pile of rubbish Pearson has been inspecting is a trail worn by the feet of smugglers and illegal immigrants. The trail is littered with one-gallon plastic water jugs. The smugglers usually travel under cover of darkness, so they spray-paint the jugs black for camouflage. Crews pick up thousands of jugs each year, Pearson says.Park officials are also dismayed by the damage done by couriers. In the fragile desert, a trail used only once can take 30 years to fade; trails used frequently can be all but permanent.When smugglers tear across the desert in cars to avoid agents, ''they may mow down a 2-foot saguaro that's 50 years old,'' ranger Susan Hughes says. ''They don't care what they're driving over.''Smugglers passing through Organ Pipe try to avoid detection. But if they've been seen, they sometimes take desperate, though not necessarily violent, measures, Pearson says. Park service trucks have been rammed by smugglers' vehicles. And smugglers carrying drugs in their trunks, when spotted by authorities, sometimes roar back to Mexico at 90 mph-plus on Highway 85, which carries thousands of people a day. ''One of these days, there's going to be a bad accident,'' Pearson says, ''and people are going to be killed.''Continued on Published: December 10, 1999©Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.  
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Comment #3 posted by greenfox on December 11, 1999 at 08:14:17 PT
Everybody else is just's a helluva start.. could be made into a monster if we all pull together as a team..and if we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it riding the gravy train......
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Comment #2 posted by legalizeit on December 10, 1999 at 20:32:54 PT
Not just a war on drugs...
>''they may mow down a 2-foot saguaro that's 50 years old''>Drug smugglers have threatened rangers, trampled delicate plants and burned historic structures.>leaving their vessel making tight circles at 30 mph in a section of the park covered with shallow reefsOf course, none of this would have happened if the "war" was not going on. The war on drugs is:% a war on the Constitution% a war on Third World countries% a war on addicts who really need help% a war on an innocent plant whose benefits go far beyond self-exploration% a war on our fragile enviroment% a war on police, who get corrupted from the large amounts of money and lose the public's respect% a war on children, who are so used to being lied to that they don't know what the truth is anymore... also the children whose lives are ruined because their mother/father was jailed for possessing or selling a PLANT% a war on the sick and dying% A WAR AGAINST EVERYTHING OUR COUNTRY STANDS FOR.(Abe Lincoln: “Prohibition will work great injury to thecause of temperance...for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and it makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”)Whom does the drug war benefit?% prison builders% lawyers% drug-testing labs% cops% Barry McCaffrey, who would probably be groveling for a job if he wasn't "Czar of Lies"% the DEA, FBI, CIA, Coast Guard% corrupt officials, cartels, etc...When will the government listen to Honest Abe's admonition? (The Gov. of New Mexico wasn't the first Republican to speak out against prohibition!!!)
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Comment #1 posted by steve1 on December 10, 1999 at 15:23:18 PT
"they were drug traffickers returning to Mexico after smuggling hundreds of pounds of marijuana north through the park into the USA."  Well it's only marijuana.
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